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Candomblé in the Paintings of Djanira da Motta e Silva (1916-1979)

I went to see the exhibition, Djanira: a memória de seu povo (Djanira: the memory of her people) at the Museu de arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP) in anticipation of seeing some of her paintings on Candomblé in the line up. They were!

Today, Djanira is considered a prominent painter of Brazilian modernism, her works illustrate different forms of religiosity and the diversity of Brazilian sceneries and landscapes. Curated by Isabella Rjeille, and Rodrigo Moura, both curators of Brazilian art at MASP, the exhibition rekindled Djanira`s paintings after four decades of letting her art fall between the cracks. (This was implied in the exhibition pamphlet)

Three orixás, 1966, oil on canvas, 130 x 195.5 cm, collection Pinacoteca of the State of São Paulo, Government of the State of São Paulo, 1969, photo: Isabella Matheus

According to Rodrigo Moura, the 1950s was when Djanira was quite focused on

detailed research of Brazilian popular culture particularly of African origins. This became her most influential period because, through her distinctive style, she was able to create an interchange with the avant-garde of that period.

Candomblé, 1957, tempera on wood, 250 x 243 cm, collection Banco Itaú, Salvador, Bahia, photo: Iara Venanzi

Djanira's work was sometimes considered primitive or naive art by critics . Such taxonomies are in this day comprehended as discriminatory and perverse; constructed in the era of the "centre and periphery" dichotomy.

Born in Avaré, São Paulo, Djanira worked in coffee fields, cooked for families of farmers and was at some point, a seamstress. On medical recommendation, she moved to the Santa Teresa district of Rio de Janeiro, at age 23 from her painting career began.

Feira da Bahia, 1956, oil on cavnvas, 80 x 116 cm, coleção particular, Salvador, Bahia, foto: Andrew Kemp

In a famous defence of her prime focus, she declared:

“As a painter, I inhabit the rich, popular aspects of Brazil, passing through the nationalist sites of masters such as Di Cavalcanti and Tarsila do Amaral. I have roots planted in the earth, I do not betray my origins, nor am I ashamed to be a native. I trust in the development of an art that is authentically ours."

Below is the original quote in Portuguese in case I have not done much justice to the translation.

como pintora, habito as ricas vertentes populares do Brasil, passando pelos sítios nacionalistas de mestres como Di Cavalcanti e Tarsila do Amaral. Tenho raízes plantadas na terra, não traio minhas origens, nem me envergonho de ser uma nativa. Confio no desenvolvimento de uma arte autenticamente nossa."

One of the many “rich aspects” of Brazilian culture she depicted was Candomblé ceremonies. I have identified some ritual artefacts in these paintings that would be helpful in discussing the idiosyncrasies of Candomblé`s material culture.


Djanira, et al. A Arte Sob o Olhar De Djanira: coleção Museu Nacional De Belas Artes. Museu Oscar Niemeyer, 2005.


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